The talk around D.C. is that Tom Wheeler, the former head of NCTA and CTIA, is the frontrunner to replace Julius Genachowski as FCC Chairman. OK, sure, Wheeler headed trade groups representing two of broadcasting’s long-time nemeses, cable and wireless. But that could work in broadcasters’ favor since he’ll have to be careful not to show any favoritism toward his former employers. And having spent his entire career representing businesses, running businesses and investing in businesses, Wheeler undoubtedly will have a light regulatory touch in all matters. And that’s not something you can say about most Democrats.
Sound the alarm: A cable guy may be taking over the FCC.
That’s right. Tom Wheeler, one-time president of the NCTA and long-time friend of cable moguls, is the consensus favorite to succeed Julius Genachowski as chairman of the agency. Genachowski ended months of speculation by confirming today that he will step down “in the coming weeks.”
I will always think of Wheeler as a cable guy, because that’s what he was when we first met in 1979 at an NCTA press conference. After three years in the ranks as an NCTA lobbyist, he was succeeding Bob Schmidt as president. I was there for Broadcasting magazine. (By the way, the smartest guy in the room that day may have been Bob Johnson, another NCTA lobbyist. He announced he was leaving to create Black Entertainment Television, which he would eventually sell to Viacom for $3 billion.)
But the truth is, Wheeler isn’t much of a cable guy anymore. He has gone way beyond cable in the almost 30 years since he left NCTA in 1984. In fact, that Wheeler later ran CTIA, the principal lobby for the wireless industry, for 12 years seems more relevant to his possible FCC takeover since broadcasting and the wireless industry are locked in what is shaping up to be a long tug of war over spectrum.
Wheeler exited CTIA and the public policy arena 2004, joining Core Capital, a venture capital firm that bets on “early stage” high-tech companies, especially ones promising next-generation wireless services.
Wheeler reemerged in 2008 as a backer of Barrack Obama, helping to raise money from among his well-heeled friends and colleagues. His support earned him a spot on the transition team.
In that role, he was assigned the task of making sure the final transition from analog to digital broadcasting would go smoothly and not cause any trouble for the incoming administration. As I reported then, Wheeler ruffled some features by demanding that broadcasters step up with cash and kind for transition activities. However, he later won praise for helping to delay the final analog switch-off date from Feb. 17 to June 19 — four months that made all the difference. And smooth the transition was.
In 2010, Genachowski appointed Wheeler to chair the newly formed Technological Advisory Council to help the FCC develop policies aimed at creating jobs and improving the nation’s competitiveness. I’m not sure what it accomplished, but it shows that Wheeler wanted back in the game.
Wheeler is kind of an open book or, more accurately, an open blog, Mobile Musings. Every month or so for the past several years, he has posted an essay championing wireless communications. The pieces grow out of his old CTIA rhetoric and the Core Capital investments.
In an August 2009 posting, he addressed broadcasters, encouraging them to do more with their new digital capability than simply adding more channels. He praised their mobile DTV efforts, which were then just getting underway. “Every other technology touched by IP has been forever changed and broadcasting has no reason to expect being an exception,” he says.
But, like the man he may replace at the FCC, Wheeler is a bit dismissive of conventional broadcasting in the piece, suggesting that it is a waste of spectrum. “The model of local broadcasters pumping out network programming augmented by local news is an anachronistic legacy of analog,” he says.
“What is the purpose of continuing the local TV broadcasting model when between 85% and 90% of American homes are connected to cable or satellite services?” he asks.
“Broadcasting’s only intrinsic service is to a small number of homes that rely on over-the-air and second and third sets not hooked up to a service provider. Those audiences can’t be disenfranchised, but there has to be a better solution — an awful lot of scarce spectrum is being allocated to a very small audience.”
Despite the resume and such musings, neither I nor Doug Halonen, our Washington correspondent, has been able to pick up any angst or objections among broadcasters over a Wheeler chairmanship. They know him, they respect him and they don’t think he’s out to get them.
This is not to say that some are not quietly working to derail his candidacy. After all, it is Washington. What people say (especially to reporters) and do are not always aligned.
From Genachowski’s perspective, I would think that Wheeler would be the perfect successor in at least one respect. Given his infatuation with all things mobile, Wheeler would likely drive forward the incentive auction, Genachowski’s innovative plan for reallocating great hunks of spectrum from TV to wireless broadband.
Wheeler is the kind of smart, capable executive and politician that could make the auction work for all vested parties — including broadcasters — within the next couple of years. It won’t be easy. It’s a extraordinarily complex proceeding and the NAB is already sending signals that it is ready to go to court if it doesn’t get its way.
Wheeler is not alone in angling for the FCC job. Others thought to have a shot: Karen Kornbluh, a former Obama aide; Larry Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration; and Catherine Sandoval, a California Public Utilities Commission member. But Wheeler bundled more than $500,000 for the Obama campaign last year and that kind of commitment to the cause is not easily ignored.
OK, sure, Wheeler headed trade groups representing two of broadcasting’s long-time nemeses — cable and wireless. But as one broadcast source pointed out to me, that could work for broadcasters. From the start, he’ll have to be careful not to show any favoritism toward his former employers.
And having spent his entire career representing businesses, running businesses and investing in businesses, Wheeler undoubtedly will have a light regulatory touch in all matters. That’s not something you can say about most Democrats.
I’d give him a chance.
P.S. Something of a Civil War buff, Wheeler has written two books that tap that war: Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War (HarperCollins, 2006) and Take Command: Leadership Lessons of the Civil War (Doubleday, 2000).
So, here’s my question, Tom: If the Civil War generalship has so much to teach about business leadership, how come U.S. Grant was such a lousy businessman?